Many new law students will have watched The Paper Chase during the summer, read One L or listened to attorneys tell war stories regarding law school. As a result, they arrive with mixed feelings of apprehension and excitement.
Although legal education is uniquely challenging, do not let the hype overwhelm you. The workload is manageable if you keep a balanced perspective and implement smart strategies. Below are answers to common questions law students have.
Is law school as competitive as everyone says? Entering law students are a select group: high LSAT scores, outstanding grades and other achievements. The intellectual caliber of their classmates is higher and the grading is more rigorous than many have experienced previously. Even so, law students can do well academically without acting cut-throat toward their classmates.
Most law schools provide multiple resources to help students achieve success. Academic support professionals teach students effective strategies for legal studies. Many professors regularly answer questions during office hours. Upper-division teaching assistants may be available to help with doctrinal courses.
Careful time management is essential to academic success. Full-time students should study for 50 to 55 hours each week outside of class: reading, briefing, outlining, reviewing for exams and completing legal writing assignments.
How can I make the Socratic method less terrifying? Because new law students are used to lectures or discussions based on volunteers, they fear being called upon randomly during class. Still, the well-prepared law student can become adept at the Socratic method.
Careful reading and briefing of cases will provide the foundation for answering classroom questions. First, gain a deep understanding of the case details and court’s reasoning. Next, extract the important concepts and legal rules from the case. Finally, consider the case within the broader context of the topic being studied.
Practical ways to prepare for the Socratic method include the following:
• Anticipate the questions that your professor is likely to ask about the case.
• When another student is called on, stay focused by answering the professor’s questions silently in your head, comparing your answers to the student’s comments and listening to the professor’s responses.
• When called upon, think before you answer and stay focused on the actual question rather than rambling in your response.
• Realize that questions do not always have right or wrong answers and may test your ability to respond with “it depends” and give arguments for both parties.
What does course outlining mean and how is it actually done? Course outlines condense your extensive briefs and class notes down to the essentials. Outlines change the focus from isolated case specifics to larger topics and the legal tools needed to solve legal scenarios during exams. Course outlines are your master documents for exam review.
By creating your own outlines, you will gain greater understanding and retain the material better because you personally grapple with the concepts. Use commercial outlines or outlines prepared by prior first-years to check for missing information or format, but not as a substitute for doing your own work.
Begin outlines early so you can distribute studying the material throughout the semester. You learn to outline by actually outlining, so the idea of waiting until you know how is an illusion. By the end of the second week, you should have enough material to start outlines. Then condense new material into your outline each week.
Some practical tips for outlines are:
• Remember that an outline is not a compilation of case briefs. Instead, it contains a toolkit of essential law for each topic and subtopic.
• The toolkit should include rules, exceptions to rules, variations on rules, policy arguments, steps of analysis, questions to ask and other information relevant to the subject.
• Your outline should match your professor’s version of the course: terms, steps of analysis, emphases. The professor can identify your points quickly on an exam if you explain the material the same way it was presented in class.
• Supplement your outline with graphic organizers if visuals help you understand and retain information: Venn diagrams, mind maps, flowcharts.
How does one prepare effectively for just one final exam in a course? Undergraduates cram for their exams because multiple exam opportunities mean less material to learn for any test. Most law school exams will be comprehensive and cover 15 weeks of material. Successful law students begin their exam review as soon as their outlines are started. Thorough review over the semester promotes in-depth understanding, avoids relearning material that has been forgotten, and provides ample time to apply the concepts to practice questions.
There are four types of weekly review that increase understanding and retention of material:
• Cover-to-cover outline review to reinforce the material in your memory. Read through the entire outline at least once a week.
• Intense outline review to learn a portion of the outline as though the exam were next week. By focusing on several subtopics at a time, you gain deeper understanding of the material.
• Practice questions to monitor your application of the reviewed material to new legal problems. Some possible sources for practice questions include commercial study aids, professors’ websites and review sessions offered at your school.
• Memory drills to make sure that you can state the law precisely. Paraphrased rules may cause you to miss elements to discuss in your analysis.
Why do legal research and writing courses take so much time? Your future career depends on the skills taught in these courses. Legal writing requires precision and conciseness. Here are some things to consider for success in these courses:
• Begin your research and writing as soon as they are assigned. A high grade requires careful research, multiple drafts and extensive editing.
• Outline before you begin writing to ensure your analysis will be organized and include all relevant issues and sources.
• Avoid flowery language, outdated legalese and convoluted sentences. Check your grammar, punctuation and spelling carefully. Follow any format guidelines exactly.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed initially because law school is so different from what you have experienced in the past. By using the resources available and learning new study strategies, you can succeed.
Amy L. Jarmon is assistant dean for academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law.