Just when you think you have everything under control, it happens: You’re making progress on your outlines, and you’re keeping up-to-date with your assigned reading for each class. You think you may even have some time next weekend to meet up with some friends from undergrad or catch up on the new episodes of your favorite series on Netflix. You think you have developed a study schedule that is working for you, and then your legal writing professor gives your class a new major writing assignment. Or maybe you are an upper-level law student, and you have a seminar paper, draft of a law review note, moot court brief, or some other project coming due soon. How can you maintain your study plan, complete this new major project, and still maintain some semblance of a balanced life? The key to your success in this instance is going to be developing a strong plan of attack.
Law students tend to have problems with these types of big assignments for three main reasons. First, they may be intimidated by the size of the project from the beginning, viewing it as one colossal mountain that must be conquered. Second, students often underestimate the amount of time it requires to do a good job on a writing assignment. They may remember how long it took to write a paper in undergrad and assume that the new writing task is similar in its time demands. Finally, law students often procrastinate in starting a new project, either because they are intimidated by its size or because they underestimate its requirements. By the time that they actually start the project, they may not have left enough time to do a good job on it—and in the meantime, they let their other studies slide.
So how can you approach these types of major projects in a way that will maximize your opportunity to successfully complete them and prevent an increase in stress? Here is a step-by-step method for tackling your big law school projects:
- Develop a “project plan” as soon as your professor assigns the project. One key to successful planning is to avoid delay.
- Break major projects up into several smaller components. Dividing the project into smaller pieces will help you to not be intimidated by the project’s size. It will also help you to better evaluate what needs to be accomplished and how much time the project will take. Make a list of the “tasks” that have to be accomplished and estimate how long each task will take. For example, maybe you have to draft an appellate brief for a class. Some of the tasks that you might list for this assignment include: reading and taking notes from the case record; researching the applicable standard of review and relevant legal issues (treat each legal issue as a separate task); drafting the brief (treat each section of the brief—for example, statement of the issues, statement of the facts, statement of the case, jurisdictional statement, argument/analysis of each legal issue, conclusion, etc.—as a separate task); formatting (i.e., creating case caption, signature block, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities); and editing. Even editing might be broken up into separate tasks. For example, one editing task might be to edit argument and analysis. Another editing task might be to edit for grammar, typographical errors, and spelling. A third edit might focus solely on citations and Bluebooking.
- Set a separate deadline for each task you’ve identified—create a place for each task in your study schedule. Spread out the tasks so that you are able to maintain your other studies as well. Make conscious choices about scheduling—some tasks will require less brain power than others. Schedule difficult tasks for times that your brain is fresher, and easy tasks for times that you may be more tired. These types of conscious decisions allow you to make the best use of your time.
- Hold yourself accountable—don’t become complacent because it seems like the deadline is far away. Thinking “I have plenty of time” results in procrastination and less successful outcomes.
- Don’t forget time for editing. Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and most students don’t give it the time that it deserves. Schedule tasks early enough to give yourself plenty of time for editing. The quality of your work will be much better, and your grades will reflect the extra effort.