Tag Archives: study tips

New Law Student Guide to the First Weeks of Class

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

It’s that time of year when law schools are preparing to welcome new students to Orientation and their first semester of classes. As a new law student, you have probably received numerous communications from your law school, providing a variety of instructions regarding your 1L year. You may have read some books which describe the law school experience, and you may have current or former law students giving you advice. There are a wealth of articles on this blog to help you during your transition to law school, but I thought that I would highlight some that may be particularly useful in the first few weeks. Here they are:

First, a couple of articles explaining one of the common approaches to the law school classroom, Socratic Method:

Here are some articles about reading and briefing cases for law school:

Next, a couple of articles about taking notes in your law school classes:

Finally, here’s an article about how to create a good study schedule while in law school:

 

More posts about how to be a successful law student coming in the future. In the meantime, does anyone have any specific questions or concerns about starting law school? Feel free to put your questions in the comments section for this post.

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Last Minute Bar Prep: Using Checklists

Image courtesy of lordjiew at freedigitalphotos.net.

Image courtesy of lordjiew at freedigitalphotos.net.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Law School Resolutions

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There’s something about the start of a new year that signals a new beginning, a chance to make your life better or get things right. That’s why so many people decide to make New Year’s resolutions. For law students, the new calendar year means that grades from last semester are coming in and another semester will soon begin. It’s an opportunity to set new goals in law school as well—this is true regardless of what grades you’ve earned previously or what your class rank is.

So whether you are a 1L or an upper-level student, have received good grades or are on academic probation, I challenge you to set some New Year’s law school resolutions. Be intentional in what you do this semester—don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen to you. Assess the areas of your life as a law student that you want to improve, and set out some specific actions you will take to make those improvements. I’ve provided some suggestions for law school resolutions below, but don’t be limited by these ideas.

Possible resolutions for students who want to improve academically:

  • Taking more practice exams (You can sometimes get these from your professors, but also don’t forget about the academic support professionals at your law school)
  • Outlining each major topic as you finish it in class
  • Joining a study group
  • Meeting with last semester’s professors to go over exams and determine how to improve
  • Meeting with an academic support professional at your law school to come up with an action plan for this semester

Other possible academic resolutions:

  • Creating a study schedule and sticking to it
  • Volunteering as a tutor (or seeking a tutor to help you with your studies)
  • Trying new approaches to studying or outlining
  • Getting up earlier to get assigned reading done before each day’s classes
  • Complete a legal externship or internship

Possible career planning resolutions:

  • Finding more networking opportunities
  • Revising your legal resume and cover letter
  • Reaching out to alumni of your law school to learn more about what they do as lawyers
  • Revising past writing assignments to create strong writing samples

Other possible law school-related resolutions:

  • Joining a mentoring program
  • Getting involved in a law student organization
  • Volunteering for pro bono opportunities
  • Not missing class except for emergencies
  • Being on time to class

As you assess where you are in law school and where you want to go with your studies this year, you will likely think of other resolutions that make sense for you. The key is to take action—don’t wait on the sidelines for good things to happen to you!

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Why Your Professor is Your Best Resource for Law School Exams

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This may seem like an obvious statement, but your professor is the most important source of information for what will be tested in law school essay exams and how your essays will be graded. As exams approach, you may be tempted to bury yourself in purchased products, including outlines, hornbooks, and other commercial study aids. Except in rare circumstances, those resources were not created by your professor, and they haven’t been tailored to your specific class. These types of resources should only be used as supplements, not your primary source of information—instead, keep your focus on assigned course readings and what your professor tells you.

Make sure that you listen closely to your professor—not just in the days and weeks leading up to the exam, but also throughout the semester. Professors often give clues about what they will test, how they will test it, and how they will grade. With that advice in mind, if your professor spends a lot of time stressing policy arguments in class, you should look for opportunities to include those policy arguments in your essay. If you professor uses terminology or terms of art that vary from what the assigned readings use, make sure you use the terms that your professor has used. If you don’t see a topic on the exam that your professor spent a significant amount of time on in class or stressed as particularly important, look close to make sure you aren’t missing that issue. There is no guarantee that the exam covers that topic, but it is likely to be tested.

You also want to familiarize yourself with your professor’s approach to testing. If your professor provides access to past exams, take the time to look them over. Use them as practice exams to test your ability to answer essay questions in the amount of time allowed. (And, as I explained in a previous post, there are many other benefits to practice exams as well!)

The best way to make efficient use of your study time is to use what your professor has assigned or discussed in class as a guide. You’re less likely to focus your energies on information that won’t be tested, and you will be able to better anticipate the types of questions you will see on the exam.

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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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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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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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Key Components of a Case Brief

Now that we’ve explored how to approach reading cases in law school, let’s focus on what should be included in your case brief: the key components of the case.

The Parties: First, look at the preliminary information found above the case and ask: Who are the parties? One way to identify the parties is by their names. Thus, in the case Smith v. Jones, the parties would be “Smith” and “Jones.” But the parties are also given titles, based upon their roles in the case. At the trial level, parties are usually known as “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In an appellate case, the parties may be known as “appellant” and “appellee,” or “petitioner” and “respondent,” depending on the court. (At the trial level, the plaintiff is the party who brought the case into court. At the appellate level, the appellant or petitioner brought the case into court.) Your brief should note both the names of the parties and their roles in the case.

The Court: The preliminary information also tells you which court heard the case. Sometimes the court is a state court, and other times it is a federal court. It may be a supreme court, or an intermediate appellate court. Include the court that decided the case in your case brief.

The Citation: The preliminary information tells you where the case was published, in other words, the citation. The cases in your casebook were originally published in bound volumes known as reporters. The citation creates a quick way of finding that original version of the case. For example, one citation might be 347 U.S. 483. The case would be found in the United States Reporter, which publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The volume number would be 347, and the first page of the case would be page 483. (Don’t panic if you don’t always know what the citation means at this point—you will learn a lot more about citations in your legal research and writing classes.)

The Date: The final important piece of preliminary information is the date, which is found in parentheses after the citation. It’s important to make note of the date that the case was decided. In many classes, you will trace how legal issues developed over time, and the dates will help you relate multiple cases to each other.

Now that we’ve covered the preliminary information, let’s take a look at the various components found in the text of the case.

Procedural History: The procedural history is the history of the case. Include in the procedural history (1) what courts the case has traveled through, (2) what happened in previous court proceedings, and (3) how the case ended up in the current court.

The Issues: One way to find the issues is to ask: “What are the big legal questions that the court is considering? What has to be resolved or answered?” Sometimes the court states explicitly what the issues are. The court may say something like, “On appeal, the appellant asks us to consider whether . . . ” Or, the court may say, “The first issue is whether . . . ” In other cases, the court may not be as explicit—you’ll have to dig a little deeper to identify the issues. Keep in mind that issues are related to the law. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what the issues are, you can often use the casebook’s Table of Contents, Chapter and Section headings, case introductions, and case notes (located after the case) to help identify the issues.

Facts: There are really two types of important facts: “necessary” facts and “context” facts. Necessary facts are facts that are legally relevant—in other words, facts that the court relied upon in resolving the case’s legal issues. In contrast, context facts are facts that aid our understanding of the necessary facts—they’re not essential to the court’s decision but give a more complete picture of what’s going on in the case. Not every fact mentioned in a case is necessary or provides context. Most cases also contain extra facts that can distract you from what’s really important in the case. This is why you should sift through the facts before creating your case brief.

The Holding: The holding is the answer to the question, “How did the court resolve the issue(s)?” In other words, it is the answer to the legal questions that were asked in the case. Sometimes courts will label something as the “holding” in the case. Be cautious about these types of labels. Often, what the court calls the “holding” is actually the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of its holding.

The Reasoning: The most important component of your case brief is the court’s reasoning, or its rationale, for the holding. To determine what the court’s reasoning was, ask: “How did the court arrive at the holding? How did the court explain the answer to the legal questions asked in the case?” You can identify the court’s reasoning by looking for the places where the court is applying law (statutes, regulations, or other cases) to the facts. In your case brief, make note of the law that the court used to answer the legal question(s). Put this law into your own words rather than writing it out word for word—you will understand and remember it better in the future. After identifying the relevant law from the case, look closer at how the court applied that law to the facts. Were there particular facts that the court viewed as important to its analysis? Were there other facts that the court said were not important?

Sometimes the court also applies policies in their analysis of the law and facts. When a court considers policy arguments, it is weighing the potential effects on society of different approaches to the issues. If the court discusses policy arguments in its reasoning, you should note those policies and how the court applied them.

The Judgment: Finally, make note of the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of the holding. The judgment refers to how the appellate court resolved the case on appeal, and it may provide instructions to the trial court. Look for words such as “affirmed,” “reversed,” or “reversed and remanded.”

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A 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases in Law School

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I explained what a case brief is and why case briefing helps you to be: (1) prepared for class; (2) organized and focused on the important law for legal writing assignments; and (3) prepared for later synthesis and outlining of course materials. The first step to briefing a case is reading the case. As we’ve talked about before, law school reading is generally very different from most students’ previous reading experiences. This is because the focus is on critical reading. Often, students are used to being able to read class assignments quickly, skimming to identify what’s important. In contrast, cases are very dense in terms of information, and they require focused reading and attention to detail to unpack everything that’s important. A quick read will leave you without important information that you’ll need for class and on the exam.

With that in mind, here is my 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases for Law School:

(1) Read the case. I know, I know. This seems obvious. But bear with me here—there is a method to my madness. The first time that you read a case, you should just read through it without taking any notes about what the case is about. It is during this first read-through that you should look up any legal terms you don’t understand and make notes to yourself about their meanings. One of the reasons why it takes so much time to read a case, especially in your first semester of law school, is because of the new legal language that may trip you up in your reading. When you come across legal words and phrases that you do not understand, you should stop, look them up, and make note of their definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary is a good resource for law students. You can access Black’s Law Dictionary on Westlaw, and it is also available in print form and as an app for iPhones and iPads.

(2) Read the case again, this time marking important points and taking some notes. Once you have read through the case once, start reading through the case a second time. It is at this point that you should begin to mark important parts of the case and take notes. Some students first underline important aspects of the case in pencil or pen and make notations in the margins of the case book. Visual learners often use highlighters—they may even use a different color to signal each part of the case.

You should also begin taking notes at this point—your notes will become your case brief. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about what should be included in the case brief. Right now, I want to focus on the note-taking process though. Some students hand-write their case briefs, while others type them. Whichever form you choose to use, you want to make sure that these notes are organized and easy to read, as you’ll refer to them in class and as you begin synthesizing and outlining information in preparation for your exams.

(3) Reread the case yet again. After you’ve completed the process I described above, you’ll realize that there are some things about the case that you still do not understand. At this point, you should go back and reread the case yet again, focusing specifically on the things that you need to work through. You may reread some parts of the case multiple times, in fact. As you continue to work through the case, you will add to your Case Brief until it is completed.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll begin to explore what you should include in your case briefs. In the meantime, start reading!

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Leveraging Your Preferred Learning Style in Law School

Although there is some debate on this subject, many people believe that understanding your preferred learning style can help you to make better use of your time—your studying will be more effective, which will also make it more efficient. Not everyone agrees that there is a direct link between maximizing your learning style and achieving academic success, but thinking about your preferred learning style—as well as other learning styles—may introduce you to different study techniques that you might not have otherwise thought about.

It is also important to understand that, regardless of your learning preferences, you will encounter circumstances during class and while you study when the information is not presented in the way that you prefer. In those circumstances, you will have to find the way past your own learning preferences to learn the material anyhow, and your understanding of various learning techniques may help you to do that.

One of the most popular learning preference assessments, the Vark assessment, identifies five key types of learning preferences: (1) visual; (2) aural; (3) reading and writing; (4) kinesthetic; and (5) multimodal.

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Visual learners prefer to learn by seeing. They may prefer professors to use powerpoint slides in class, and they like to read books with diagrams, pictures, flow charts, and graphs. A visual learner may use different colored ink or type to label particular parts of their notes or case briefs, or may use highlighter markers when they read. They may also convert their notes into flow charts or mind maps to visualize how various concepts that they’ve studied relate to each other.

Image courtesy of Chaiwat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Chaiwat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Aural learners prefer to learn by hearing information. They remember more by listening to lectures, and may find it helpful to make audio recordings of information that they want to study. Some aural learners use text to audio software to convert reading assignments into aural information that they can listen to as they read. Because aural learners are focused on listening in class, their notes from class may not be as helpful, and it may require more work to expand their notes after class by incorporating other materials from readings. Aural learners may also find it helpful to talk through legal concepts aloud, either by themselves or in a study group.

Image courtesy of Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Reading and writing learners prefer to learn through text. They may prefer reading information for themselves, whether through reading assignments or class powerpoints and handouts. This type of learner also tends to take extensive notes. They may study by reading and writing information from their notes over and over again, and they like to turn flow charts, diagrams, and charts into words instead of visual images.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Kinesthetic learners, sometimes referred to as tactile learners, learn best by touching and doing things. They may prefer role-play exercises or situations that allow them to act things out. They also like to practice doing things in order to learn them.

Finally, there are multimodal learners. Most learners are actually multimodal learners, and their learning preferences depend on the situation. As a result, multimodal learners may use any of the strategies that I’ve described.

If you would like more information about your preferred learning styles, take the Vark assessment today (the basic assessment is free, although the website offers more extensive analysis for a fee). There is also this Index of Learning Styles, which is categorized a little differently from what I’ve described here. Regardless of what year you are in law school, thinking about how you learn and exploring other study techniques can contribute to your academic success.

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