Is your professor using Zoom, WebX, or another online platform to teach your course live? Here are some best practices for presenting yourself professionally and having the best learning experience in your online classroom.
Test out Zoom with your computer before it’s time for class. Many universities give students access to Zoom, WebX, or other online classroom accounts. Set up that account in advance, and practice using it. Make sure that you have your computer set up properly: explore how to mute and unmute your microphone, activate your camera so that you show up in the class on video, raise your hand and use the chat features. Make sure your internet works properly with the platform, and fix any problems you identify before it’s time for class to begin.
Realize that you have a significant problem accessing the course online? Reach out in advance to your professor, your law school’s IT department, or the Dean of Students to identify solutions for those problems as soon as possible to ensure that you maintain access to the course materials and don’t fall behind.
Find a distraction-free environment for taking classes on Zoom or other platforms. It’s important to use these platforms in a distraction-free environment, so that you can focus on what your professor and fellow students are saying. Eliminate background noise in your own environment, such as the TV or music playing, people talking, or a dog barking. If you unmute your microphone to respond to a professor’s question or ask your own question, anything sound in the background will be picked up by your microphone. The best place is a quiet room where you can shut the door and not be interrupted. Don’t forget to tell anyone that you live with not to interrupt you during class time, and silence your phone as well.
Take your online class as seriously as you would if it were held in the law school classroom. Moving a class online doesn’t change your professor’s expectation of the level of preparation you have done in advance, your willingness to participate in class, or your ability to answer questions if you are called on. Engage in your online classes fully and be prepared to get the most out of them possible. Not only will you do better in that particular class and on the exam, but you will carry more knowledge and skills from that course into your other academic and professional endeavors.
Use a computer for live online classes, not a cell phone. Although a one-on-one Zoom/WebX meeting may be effective using the app on your phone, phones are really not useful for online classrooms. A cell phone is just too small to see Powerpoint slides, documents, or websites that your professor may share with the class through the platform, and some features are hard to find and use in the cell phone app.
Makesure youfollowappropriate online classetiquette. Sign in with video so classmates and your professor can see you. Keep your microphone muted unless your professor calls on you in class. Dress as you would for an in-person class, considering what you want your professional reputation to be. Be on time entering the class, stay engaged with the class for the entire time, and don’t leave the online classroom until your professor has ended class (unless you’ve told your professor in advance why you have to arrive late or leave early). Show respect for your professor and your fellow classmates by paying attention, just as you would in the physical classroom.
If you follow these best practices, you will set yourself up for getting the most out of those live online classes, and you will demonstrate your professionalism to your professor and fellow students.
Many law schools have made an abrupt shift from face-to-face to online instruction in the past week in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and more will be joining them in the upcoming days. These changes can be stressful for law students, and it is hard to stay focused on your studies in times of uncertainty. Today, I want to focus on six key strategies you can use for successful online learning. Implementing these strategies will help you get the most out of your studies, stay focused and motivated, and make sure that you continue to make progress on your academic and professional goals. And there is an added bonus – taking charge of your academic plan can also help reduce your stress in an uncertain time.
Strategy #1: Know the Facts. Check your email regularly (at least twice a day, but I recommend more often on days that you have online classes – your professor may communicate specific instructions to you before class time begins). Read every email coming from your university, your law school, and your professors carefully. Have classes been suspended while your law school prepares to transition to remote learning? If so, when do classes resume?
What format will each of your classes take, and what learning platforms or technology will your professors use? Make yourself familiar with them. Make sure that your computer is set up properly and that you can access class resources, video, etc. from home. If you identify any challenges that would make it difficult for you to access online learning materials, reach out as soon as possible to the Dean of Students at your law school, as well as your professors.
Will your classes be synchronous, held at the same time on line as they were regularly scheduled in the classroom, or will they be asynchronous, where material will be posted online for you to complete on your own schedule? Are there classes that will have to be made up because they were suspended during a transition period? If so, when and how will those classes take place?
Are your professors making any changes to course requirements or assignment dates? Make sure you are aware of any changes to your courses, and seek clarification if you are unsure of your professors’ expectations for online attendance, participation, or other requirements.
Strategy #2: Plan Your Days. Just because you are studying at home rather than at the law school, it doesn’t mean that you throw away your study schedule. To stay on track with what you need to learn and accomplish over the upcoming weeks, you must develop a study plan. But this isn’t something new – you already know how to do this. Think of your study and class schedule as a regular job that you have to do every day. Create a daily schedule, with blocks of time that you are “in class,” times that you are preparing for class or reviewing and synthesizing material after class, and time that you are working on other class assignments (such as those you may have for a legal writing course). Need an online template for creating your new study schedule? I really like Free College Schedule Maker, which allows you to break your schedule down into half hour increments, can be color coded, and expands to a 7-day schedule.
Don’t forget to include breaks in that schedule that you’re creating. Schedule regular breaks to get some exercise, take a walk outside in the sunshine, eat healthy meals, etc. When we are at school, we naturally move around more, and it’s important to keep that up at home – for your health and to maintain focus in your studies.
Strategy #3: Eliminate Distractions. If you don’t usually study at home, it will be easier to become distracted when you are trying to get work done. Look for ways to reduce or eliminate distractions, to the extent that it’s possible. Try to create a dedicated study space that is not in the main traffic zone if at all possible, and communicate the importance of not being interrupted to anyone that you live with. (Obviously if you have children, this may not be that simple! But think about what strategies you can use to create as much distraction-free time as possible.) Share your study schedule with friends and family so that they know when you need to be focused on your work, and ask them to text, call, or talk to you during the times that you’ve scheduled for breaks. Turn off the TV while you are trying to get work done as well.
Make sure that you avoid the distractions of texting and social media during your study blocks. There are some great apps out there to lock down your phone or computer when you want to study, such as Pocket Points, Forest, and Flipd, and if you have a hard time resisting the urge to check out social media or news outlets when you are studying, it is worth exploring them. (I’ll discuss more strategies for avoiding distraction in a later post.)
Strategy #4: Keep Priorities in Focus. The routine of going to law school every day helps to establish discipline and accountability, and you may feel less motivated without that structure in place to support you. But it’s important to keep your larger priorities in focus during this time, and make sure that your efforts reflect those priorities. Don’t reduce your efforts when no one is watching you. You are going to law school because your professional goals are important to you, and you need to remind yourself that these final weeks of the semester are still an opportunity to gain knowledge and skills that will help you achieve your academic and professional goals. For those who are graduating and taking the July bar exam, this is particularly important. Don’t lose momentum now, at this critical point.
Strategy #5: Stay Engaged with Your Professors. Your professors are still among your most important resources in law school, and it’s important that you stay engaged with them. Come prepared to online classes, and participate fully in any class discussion. As you review course materials and synthesize what you’ve learned, reach out to your professors with your questions. You can always email any questions, but your professor can also schedule phone calls or Zoom or Skype meetings. If your professor hosts virtual office hours on line, I recommend participating. It’s a good way to stay connected with your professor and your classmates, and you will enhance your understanding of course materials in the process.
Strategy #6: Stay Engaged with Your Classmates. Your classmates can be your greatest resources and support system during law school, and remote learning has the potential to isolate you if you don’t take active steps to stay engaged. In a study group? Brainstorm ways to maintain your meetings remotely. There are all kinds of resources out there, from Zoom or Skype to shared folders in OneDrive or Googledocs. Reach out periodically to check on your law school friends and classmates. Take the time to touch base with people you’d normally sit next to in class. Support each other, encourage each other, and as you find strategies that help you study effectively in the online environment, share those strategies with others.
A move to remote learning may require some adjustment, but taking intentional steps to maintain your studies and stay engaged with your professors and fellow students will ensure your continued success. Stay tuned over the upcoming days and weeks as I write about additional tools and strategies for academic and professional success.
The news media and social media have constant coverage of the spread of the coronavirus right now, and law students may feel stressed as they think about how the virus may affect their law school studies over the next several weeks. A lot of that stress has roots in the question, “What if … ?” Although it isn’t possible to predict the future, you can often reduce some of the worry you feel about a possible “worst case scenario” if you sit down and create a plan for what you would do if the thing you are worrying about actually occurred. Hopefully, you won’t ultimately need to follow through on the plan, but being prepared reduces stress and sets you up for success in the long term.
What might that plan entail in this circumstance? Here are a few suggestions, but you can brainstorm to identify other things you may want to include.
Are you checking your school email on a regular basis so that you are up-to-date on emails coming from your law school dean or the university? Schools commonly communicate important information through email, and therefore checking it regularly – at least twice a day, morning and late afternoon/evening – is advisable. (This is a good practice even if you weren’t worried about the coronavirus! Important information in law school and legal practice is usually communicated by email, so it is helpful to develop regular email habits.)
Do you have an organized contact list of everyone you would need to notify if you became ill and needed to miss school for several days? That list may include the names, email addresses, and phone numbers for key law school administrators like the Dean of Students and your professors. (Once again, this is a good thing to have organized anyhow – it is so much less stressful to have a plan if you ever get sick or need to miss a significant amount of school for an important reason.)
Do you have books, notes, or other things that you commonly leave in a locker at school, but would likely need if your law school decided to hold classes online for a week or two? Decide what you need to bring home with you on a regular basis so you won’t be caught unprepared if the school building was closed for a time.
Do you have email and phone contact information for members of your study group and people you sit next to in class? Your friends and classmates are a great resource in this type of situation, and study groups can still meet virtually using a variety of apps and online platforms. Plus, you can support each other if someone has to miss class because they are sick.
You’ll notice that these ideas take very little time, but they can help you feel calmer in times of potential turmoil. And it’s important to understand that, if your feelings of anxiety are making it difficult or impossible to focus on your studies or are otherwise affecting your health, you may need to reach out to a mental health professional, therapist, or counselor for more specific help in treating your stress and anxiety.
At this point in the semester, it can feel like everything is piling up and little is being accomplished. I often talk with law students who feel overwhelmed, wondering how they will ever get everything done. The stress of your studies can feel paralyzing. If nothing changes, it’s possible to fall behind to a point where there’s not enough time to catch back up.
In reality, things are not hopeless though – there are strategies that can put you back in control of your academic work. Here are five tips for managing that mid-semester time crunch:
First, evaluate what must be done. It’s hard to come up with a plan unless you know what the plan must include. Pull out some paper and create a list. Be comprehensive and methodical. Go through each class, noting anything that you are behind on, upcoming assignments, and topics that still need to be outlined. Don’t stop with your classes, however. Are you involved in any co-curricular or extracurricular activities? Add those things to the list. Evaluate other obligations you have (outside of law school) before the end of the semester, and jot them down as well. Don’t panic if the list gets really long, as the following tips will help you manage the list.
Second, rank each task on your list in terms of priority. Use these four categories (or something similar): (a) this task must be completed; (b) this task is important, and should be completed; (c) in an ideal world, this item would be completed; and (d) I’d like to complete this item, but it isn’t really a priority. Have a hard time deciding between two categories? Don’t sweat it – assign a combo label to that item (for example, a/b or b/c). What you should start realizing is that not everything on your list fits in the highest category. In fact, there are likely tasks on the list that aren’t important after all!
Third, assign a deadline for each task on your list. When you look at a long list, it can seem overwhelming at first, but as you assign deadlines you will realize that not everything needs to be done at the same time. Notice a cluster of tasks that do have similar due dates? Your awareness of that potential conflict now will help you manage those tasks better.
Fourth, break down large projects into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks. This tip helps in two different ways. First, it is easier to understand what must be done to complete a big project, thus budgeting enough time for its completion, if you have thought about the steps involved in that process. Second, a big project (such as outlining for an entire course) can seem overwhelming, but the smaller tasks feel much more manageable.
Finally, create a task calendar for the rest of the semester. Start by dividing the tasks by month. Then divide the tasks for each month into tasks for each week of that month. At the beginning of each week, allocate the tasks by day. Generally, pull one to three tasks from the list for each day (in addition to regular class prep), depending on how much time you have that day to work on the task list and the size of the tasks involved. Have too many items on the task list to be completed that week? Consider the priority ranking I discussed in Tip #2 – allocate the highest priority items first, then work your way through the rankings. Sometimes you will realize that something on the list really isn’t important after all, and it can be removed.
As you complete the tasks on your list, you will feel a sense of accomplishment. In fact, it can help you build momentum to power through the harder things on the list! Taking this approach can ensure that you complete the things that are most important to your personal life, academic success, and professional goals. And if you develop a good system to manage projects now, you can take that with you into your life as a lawyer after graduation.
It’s less than a week until the start of the February bar exam, and I’ve been having conversations with some tired, stressed-out bar studiers. I think it’s time for a pep talk, so here is my advice for the final days of bar prep:
First,assess your weaknesses and come up with a daily plan for the remaining days of bar prep. This is not the time to study all of the bar company outlines cover-to-cover. What are your weakest, actually-tested subjects? What topics within those subjects do you find most challenging? Focus your energy on those things, rather than attempting to review everything. When you review cover-to-cover, you are actually spending a lot of time on law you already know, and there’s no value to that approach in the final days.
Second, quit paying attention to your scores on your multiple choice practice sets. I always get emails from bar studiers in the last few days before the bar exam who are panicked because their scores suddenly dropped at the end. Your scores in the final days are usually not predictive of your ability to pass the bar. Instead, they may reflect the fact that you are tired, you are not taking adequate breaks from your studies, you aren’t sleeping, or you are rushing through the questions and not focusing enough on the details of each question. View practice MBE questions as an opportunity to just continue reviewing the law, regardless of whether you get the questions right or wrong.
Third, keep using essay questions in your studies. Even if you don’t have the time to fully write out your answers to the essay questions, take the time to issue spot and evaluate whether you have a plan for completing the analysis for each issue. This can be a great way to spot topics that you need to spend a little extra time on in the final days.
Fourth, run through your bar exam preparations. Have you checked the emails from the bar examiners as well as the bar examiners’ website to make sure you know what you are required to bring with you to the exam, what you are allowed to bring in the room, and what is prohibited? Get everything together so that you aren’t scrambling at the last minute. Evaluate how long it will take you to get to the bar exam location from where you are staying, and add significantly more time than that to ensure that you will have plenty of travel time regardless of emergencies. Want to know more about what to expect on the days of the exam? Most law schools send representatives from Academic Support, Student Services, or the Alumni Office to support their students on bar exam days, and they will have insight into some of the logistical concerns you may have.
Finally, and most importantly, make your health the highest priority in the final days of bar prep. Get on a sleep schedule that mirrors the timing you will need on bar exam days, and go to bed at a time that will allow you to get 8 hours of sleep (even if you don’t actually sleep that entire time). Sleep is the most important priority at this point – you will focus better if you have enough sleep, adequate sleep helps you manage stress better, and you will remember what you have studied more if you’ve protected your sleep. Eat regular meals, and make sure that they are nutritious. Your brain isn’t fed by junk food! And finally, take regular breaks. Bar studiers often don’t take enough breaks because they feel that the breaks take away from their study time, but breaks help your brain recharge so it can continue doing the hard work. If you find your attention wandering or you just can’t remember things you have known before, it often means you aren’t taking sufficient breaks.
Keep focus in these last days of bar prep, and know that your hard work will pay off in what you accomplish next week. It’s time to go out there and rock the bar!
Every year at this time, I meet with first-year law students seeking to do better than they did last semester. Those meetings may be required because of their academic performance. We usually start our discussion by exploring their approach to their studies in the Fall. There are often common themes to what they tell me. Many struggling students weren’t able to effectively manage their time, and in an attempt to get their work done they took shortcuts. Perhaps they relied on canned briefs rather than reading cases themselves, or they used a commercial outline to study for exams instead of synthesizing course material for themselves. They didn’t do practice exams in the weeks leading up to finals, perfecting their approach to essays and multiple choice questions before grades were attached to their work. All of those choices were important to their first-semester outcomes, but there is another common trait at the heart of those results: these students almost never sought help in the midst of their struggles.
So why is it so hard for law students to seek help when things aren’t going well? Some law students are embarrassed to admit to their professors that they don’t understand course material or don’t know how to complete a particular type of assignment. They believe that their professors will think less of them if they ask for too much help. Other students believe that they must “figure it out” on their own, and if they aren’t able to do that they just don’t belong in law school. There are some who don’t even realize that asking for help is an option. They may be first gen students, not knowing that their classmates who weren’t first gen already knew the process for asking for help. Or maybe their undergraduate institution didn’t really have an “office hour” culture, and so the idea that professors could be available to answer students’ questions outside of class didn’t even occur to them.
There may be a variety of reasons law students don’t seek help, but their choices end in common results. Rather than developing strategies and processes for long-term success, the struggling student reinforces bad habits that perpetuate the challenges they’re facing. Their first-semester grades come in, and they are in academic difficulty – often on academic probation, or not far from that line. They start off their second semester of law school discouraged, overwhelmed, and still not sure what they should be doing to improve their studies.
Does this post so far describe you? If so, you are not alone. And most importantly, there is an opportunity to change course. Help may already be on the way, if your law school has required you to meet with your academic support department. But there are also things that you can begin to do, on your own, to initiate those conversations and get the help you need for law school success.
What can you do to get help? Most law schools have at least one professional academic support person, and you may already know who that person is. If they haven’t reached out to you, take that first step and reach out to them. If you don’t know who provides academic support at your school, contact your Dean of Students to find out who can provide help. But don’t stop with academic support. Talk to your professors. Get feedback on your performance on your exams last semester. Ask questions about things you don’t understand. Go to office hours. Ask your classmates questions. Seek out a study group (as long as that group is actually productive). These are all things that successful law students do, and you should do it too. Seek help to break out of the old, unproductive habits from last semester, and use that help to develop new habits that build your confidence in your ability to be successful.
Finally, don’t delay. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will be on the right path for your future academic and professional goals!
Writing seems to come naturally to some law students and lawyers, but it isn’t easy for all of us. You may have gone through a school system as a child that didn’t emphasize grammar as much, and your grasp of the grammar rules is not as strong as a result. Maybe your undergraduate major is in a field that didn’t require much writing, and you’ve had less opportunity to practice that skill. You could have a learning disability that makes writing more challenging. Perhaps English is not your first language – you may have excellent grammar skills in another language, but those rules don’t transfer to English. Or maybe you are like me – a first-generation college student and law student who didn’t always hear grammatically-correct language growing up, and you have to work past that initial instinct to write how you learned to talk.
Whatever the reasons for those grammar deficiencies, it can be hard to develop the grammar skills needed for effective legal writing. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Becoming a better writer requires significant practice, and the more you write the better you get. We also have a tendency to expect our first draft to be perfect. But much of what makes writing good happens in the editing process, and that is where you have an opportunity to work on your grammar as well.
It can be helpful to have some grammar resources as you edit, and there are a number of good online resources available. Here are some that would be particularly good for law students and lawyers:
Core Grammar for Lawyers: It’s possible your law school may require this resource for legal writing classes, but you can purchase it individually if it hasn’t been assigned. This resource presents grammar rules in a legal context and gives you the opportunity to practice what you are learning.
Common Errors in English Usage, by Professor Paul Brians: Although this website is not focused on legal writing, it provides a broad range of information about many common grammar and word usage errors in the English language.
Grammar Girl, by Mignon Fogarty: This website offers regular tips for improving your writing. It is not focused on legal writing.
Law Prose Blog, by Brian Garner: Brian Garner is one of the foremost experts on legal writing and grammar, and his blog provides daily tips for legal writing.
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Purdue University’s online writing lab has some great grammar resources, located under the “General Writing” tab. This website is not focused on legal writing though, and you should avoid tabs that are clearly directed to other fields of study (such as the “Research and Citation” tab).
One common law school graduation requirement is a scholarly paper. Some students fulfill this requirement by writing a student note for their school’s law review or specialty journal, while others write a lengthy research paper as part of a seminar course. One requirement for legal scholarly writing is originality, which can feel like a lot of pressure to a 2L or 3L. After all, you are still figuring out what it means to be a lawyer, and how do you know enough to come up with something “new” to write about? The fear can paralyze you, preventing you from narrowing your topic or developing a thesis for your work.
The fear really comes from a misconception about what originality actually requires. Originality doesn’t mean that you have to be the first person to have ever written about the topic. Instead, it means that your paper has to include original thought. You can’t just summarize what other people have already written about the topic, as you might do in an undergraduate term paper. You have to have a perspective, something new to add to the conversation in some way.
What makes a scholarly paper original? Of course, if you are the first person to ever have identified a legal problem, that is an easy way to have an original paper. You might notice that a court has identified something as an issue of first impression, for example, and no scholars have yet explored that issue further. Or maybe courts are split about how to resolve a legal issue, but not much has been written outside of court opinions.
But even if other scholars have already offered potential solutions to a legal problem, there is often space for another, alternative approach. Maybe you realize that scholars have not considered something you think could be relevant for analysis of a legal issue. There may be two scholarly approaches to a topic, very different from each other, and you believe the real solution might be something in between. Or maybe another discipline has a different way of looking at that legal problem, and you realize that those other theories could be integrated into your own legal analysis.
One way to find your own voice, your personal space within the scholarly conversation, is to read some of the scholarship that has already been published on the subject. Do a search within law reviews and journals in one of the legal databases, looking for articles that have been written in the past few years on your topic. That will give you a starting point for where the scholarly conversation has been heading. Choose at least 2 or 3 articles that seem to have a significant amount of discussion of the topic that you are interested in. As you read those articles, have your own conversation with the authors in the margins. Does what you are reading raise further questions? Note what those questions are. Do you feel that the author is not considering something that could be important? Write “What about ….?” in the margin. Does what you read inspire new ideas? Make a note of those as well. When you take this approach for multiple articles, you will often identify your own perspective of the topic you have chosen.
Finally, if you have concerns about whether your topic is original enough to meet your law school’s scholarly writing requirements, make sure that you have a conversation with the person supervising your research project.
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.
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.